Cacti, crotales, and Crumb: A short history of strange sounds in classical music

by Ricky O'Bannon, Special to MPR
January 30, 2014

Contemporary classical music can sound strange, and as The Awl points out, it can look even stranger on the page.

Although the notation used by composer Christopher Trapini might have Bach beside himself, odd noises in classical music by no means new. Italian Futurist composer Luigi Russolo wrote "The Art of Noises" more than a century ago, in 1913. Russolo argued that as men adapt to live in an increasingly industrial and mechanical world, more sounds than those then found in music would become accepted as musical.

What Russolo was interested in was the very nature of sound. We accept some sounds as music and others as noise, but that changes over time. Familiarity and repetition come into play. Repeated hearings of a churning train or the mechanical pattern of equipment in a factory can take on new logic that is at times musical — a phenomenon that is illustrated wonderfully in the first five minutes of this Radiolab episode.

Many 20th century composers focused on dissecting and exploring the DNA of music. Composers like John Cage, Henry Cowell, and George Crumb wanted to explore not just sound and timbre but other musical elements such as harmony or time. Like scientists who worked simultaneously to unlock the atom and the particles within to better understand the nature of the physical world, experimental composers pulled apart, examined, and pushed the boundaries of the musical elements of their world.

Broadly speaking, these new compositions fell into one of two categories. The first looked to incorporate sounds from outside the orchestra, either through recording "found" sounds or by creating instruments out of objects that typically wouldn't be considered musical. Take this charming video that features John Cage playing an amplified cactus and other plants, with a feather.

The second category of sound came from trying to elicit non-traditional sounds from traditional instruments. Sometimes this meant rethinking how you played those instruments and other times it meant physically manipulating them, like in the case of prepared piano — which involves placing objects on piano strings or hammers.

For most audiences, John Cage's Sonata V will be easy to recognize as music — but his amplified cactus work is, well, pretty weird. It's important to remember that music is intended to convey something about our shared experience. Whether the creators are Cage and his contemporaries or 21st-century musicians like John Wiese, that reality isn't always pleasant and tuneful.

The way we process strange sounds and noise changes over time. Almost no one who hears Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" can hear it the same way that made it so controversial in 1969.

Glossing over the cultural context surrounding the performance, the feedback-laden rendition just isn't shocking to a modern listener, because of the countless strange electric guitar solos we've heard in our lifetime. Feedback and distortion, which were once noisy technical mistakes, have become an aesthetic. So it is easy for us to believe Hendrix when he says he thought his version was "beautiful," because our ears are conditioned to hear the music past the noise.

Even bearing that in mind, it doesn't always make works by Cage or Crumb any more listenable. Sometimes an electrified cactus will always sound like an electrified cactus. However, it's also worth thinking of these kinds of experimental composers as musical third-party candidates whose platform on its own may be too radical and unpalatable for most, but whose ideas force mainstream candidates to take notice and borrow a policy or two.

Multiphonics is a modern music technique that has existed for almost half a century wherein a brass or woodwind player will play one note while humming or singing another. Perhaps because the effect most closely resembles a kazoo or didgeridoo, it had never really found a place in music beyond being a novelty.

Enter someone like saxophonist Colin Stetson. Stetson is both proof that strange noises can be harnessed into something truly beautiful and that the classical music world should probably be paying as much attention to who is coming out of South by Southwest as to musicians graduating from traditional conservatories.

If we take away one thing from the Awl post, it is that many composers of this century are looking to push the same sound barriers as composers of the last. Some of these strange sounds, we'll learn to love. Others might forever sound like amplified cacti.

Ricky O'Bannon is a freelance music journalist living in Los Angeles.


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